Sunday nights at Luc, 2800 E. Madison, the menu offers a special dish, coq au vin, chicken braised in red wine. And the complimentary carafe of wine that accompanies it, one assumes, is the Côte du Rhône. Luc's the no-nonsense older brother of the family; always well-dressed and well-behaved, while his younger sister. Loulay, struts her stuff in the downtown hotel district in a low-cut gown and attracts all the wolf-whistles.
I sat at the counter overlooking the kitchen the other night and watched how a well-oiled restaurant runs with a crew of three. In charge was Sam Thompson, expediting orders and running the fryer. At the opposite end of the kitchen was our old friend Emily Fleckenstein, whom we'd last seen over a year ago aiming a blowtorch at a hapless peanut butter s'more; today, in addition to desserts, she's handling the pizzas. In the center, wielding skillets and sauté pans, is newcomer Panda Wray. When Thompson is called off the line for a moment, Wray takes two steps to her right and assumes the lead spot. She pivots to read an incoming order ticket and calls out the dish, Fleckenstein responds, confirming the order, and thus the two women run the joint until Thompson returns a few minutes later. This quiet discipline is what being a chef is really about, not some flashy, misguided notion of “passion.” You don't bray and brag, you just suck it up and chop, peel, slice, fry, clean, clean, clean.
Wray's the one, as it happens, who put together my happy hour plate of Moroccan-spiced shrimp set upon a thin garlic-spinach pancake. She drizzled a freshly warmed pan of saffron butter over the shrimp and topped the plate with arugula before handing it to me over the counter. Four bites later, it was g-gone. It wasn't dinner, but it wasn't supposed to be. You want something more substantial, that's fine; Luc also has a bouillabaisse, a beef bourguignon, a cassoulet, and a pork slider on the happy hour menu for folks who seek an early dinner. Or just the divine French fries with harissa aoili. If I didn't have other obligations, I'd probably ask Thierry Rautureau, Luc's owner, if he'd let me take over one of the kitchen counter seats, as if it were a parking stall in a downtown condo.
Another welcome bit of news from the neighborhood: Madrona's new culinary stars are going into overdrive. Brian Clevenger and his girlfriend Kayley Turkheimer are doing just fine at Vendemmia (1126 34th Avenue) and the East Anchor wine bar and seafood shop next door. You already know they've opened an out post in West Seattle, right? Raccolto, they call it.
Now comes word that they're planning a third location, to be called Contadino, in the Ernest Loves Agnes space at 600 19th Avenue E. Some felt that E Loves A was a bit precious, given Hemingway's notoriously hard-boiled persona; others were sad to see the departure of the Coaston sisters, who had held down the corner with dedication for a couple of decades as Kingfish Cafe.
And it's a good corner. Not flashy, but a destination nonetheless in a quiet residential neighborhood. Some similar examples: Vendemmia in Madrona, Salted Sea in Columbia City, Eden Hill atop Queen Anne. Places with high--but not pretentious--culinary standards, elegant decor without being fussy, and prices that don't made you take out a second mortgage.
So this is where Clevenger is going. The pizza ovens are already in place because Mario “Big Mario” Vellotti was one of the original partners (along with Jason Lajeunesse, Mike McConnell, and Joey Burgess) in the loosely knit group known as Guild Seattle. Before they opened E Loves A, several of the guys took a trip up and down the east coast to visit traditional pizzerias. Lajeunesse is staying on as a partner in the new venture, and a new guy, Nelson Whitmore from Delfina's in San Francisco, will be on hand to run the kitchen full-time. That's a great idea, and it means Clevenger gets to spend more time in, well, West Seattle running Racolto while Rock Silva holds down the fort in Madrona.
Ronald Holden is a restaurant writer for Pacific Publishing. His new book about the local food and drink, “Forking Seattle,” is available through Amazon.com